Old is gold: How Kenyan elders are revolutionizing mangrove conservation

Insights from the guardians of traditional knowledge

By Levis Sirikwa, 2023 Ocean Restoration Steward and co-founder, Ceriops Environmental Research Organization. All images courtesy of Levis Sirikwa.

What defines a society? Is it our connection to a place, or the people who live there, or the way we think and do things?

I believe human societies are defined by culture, which is in turn built upon our relationship with the environment around us.

I grew up on the coast of Kenya, by the Indian Ocean. Our culture is built upon our connection with the ocean and the vast natural resources it provides, including the mangrove ecosystems that stretch across our 530-kilometer coastline. Our lives are defined by the ocean, and we cannot live without it.

With elders in Majoreni, Kwale County, Kenya. Levis Sirikwa

The ocean has brought us all together and taught us how to live in harmony with it – an artform that was well understood by our ancestors and passed down from one generation to another through informal structures of education.

Unfortunately, this art is under threat today. Our traditional ways of life are rapidly  being replaced by the pursuit of modernity – a lifestyle that overexploits nature at the cost of future generations. Historically, we lived communally, and mangroves not only sustained livelihoods but also offered a source of spiritual connectivity. Our ancestors were not allowed to destroy large mature mangrove trees as they believed that the gods resided in them. Only logs from dense mangrove areas would be taken for building, and stumps would be used for fuel. 

Local communities can only exploit small trees for subsistence, with negligible impact on the ecosystem.
In Tudor Creek in Mombasa, large-scale commercial mangrove logging has a much greater impact than subsistence logging by local people.

This art of mangrove conservation has since been lost. In the late 20th century, commercial logging began in Tudor Creek, a large water body in Kenya’s second-largest city, Mombasa. Mangroves started being felled for export, defying the traditional ban on cutting down large mangrove trees. This was the first step towards severing the connection between Indigenous Peoples and mangroves. 

At the same time, urbanization and migration led to rapid population growth along Kenya’s coast. Mombasa grew into a large metropolitan area, and its new residents never learned the art of mangrove restoration. Life in the big city was simply about survival, even if it came at the cost of the mangroves, which were mercilessly cut down.

Community dialogues addressing climate change.

What went wrong?

If we are to go back to our roots and find out what went wrong, we need to answer several questions. How did our forefathers survive and thrive? How did they coexist with their environment? The answers to these critical questions lie with the few remaining elders in the mangrove conservation space.

There is an old African proverb that goes: “What I cannot see while I am standing, an elder can see sitting.” Our generation needs rich Indigenous knowledge to reembrace and improve the art of mangrove conservation. Having restored mangrove ecosystems for almost a decade now, I believe success lies not in the act of restoring, but rather in connecting our communities with ecosystems, with inspiration from our elders.

A sign in Swahili installed by a local community that reads: “It is prohibited to cut mangroves here.”

Here is another ancient African proverb: “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Have you ever wondered where Indigenous knowledge comes from? In Kenya, the success of mangrove restoration and conservation has hinged upon the traditional wisdom imparted by our elders. I remember the very first time I went to a mangrove forest in Vanga, in the far south of Kenya near the border with Tanzania. I was about 15 years old, on a school trip, and an old yet energetic man served as our guide: the late Mzee Suleiman. 

The old man spoke with authority, and we remained attentive to all he told us. He mentioned how life was back in the mid-20th century: how they lived in harmony with the environment, how livelihoods were effortless and guaranteed, and how weather conditions were predictable. I paused for a second and admired that way of life. If that village had remained the same today, it would have been nearly perfect. After that experience, I gradually learned from my elders that a population can develop without compromising its well-being – but only if it responsibly stewards its natural resources.

Elders are well versed in using what they have to make an impact. Here, they use short mangrove logs to drill holes in the ground to plant new mangroves.

How Indigenous knowledge powers mangrove conservation

Today, science plays an important role in setting up standard operating procedures to guide mangrove restoration in Kenya. Nevertheless, this science is rooted in Indigenous knowledge: for example, when scientists carry out time-series analyses to explain some of the drivers of mangrove degradation in the past, they rely on the memory of elders who were alive at the time. These could include past El Niños, oil spills, or the start of commercial logging – all of which can only be well explained by elders.

Mangrove restoration is a unique art.

“Hii kazi, yataka moyo!” Mzee Suleiman once told me: “The work of restoring and conserving mangroves involves more than just planting mangroves.” First, we must connect with the ecosystem and feel its desires and needs.

Five years later, I came to realize what he really meant: mangrove restoration is an art that should be expressed only by those who have embraced it. While younger generations struggle to grasp this art, our elders have no such problems. They had firsthand interactions with the forest as they depended on it growing up. They have a unique ability to listen to what the ecosystem told them – a skill they had learned from their forefathers. It was taboo then to ignore or undermine your elders, who taught you everything you needed to know.

Today, we are heavily dependent on technology, and our modern education systems have sidelined the precious Indigenous knowledge of our elders. As a result, even though we all experience climate change and talk about climate justice, our generation has lost the ability to understand what nature is telling us. We are losing the art of mangrove restoration because we fail to listen to nature.

Informal knowledge transfer across generations, from an elder to young community members in Majoreni, Kenya.

Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, there has often been an antagonistic relationship between science and Indigenous knowledge in active mangrove restoration in Kenya. Some scientists believe they know better than elders about mangrove conservation and that local people should follow their lead. In response, locals tend to withhold knowledge as they feel that scientists are excluding them from mangrove restoration efforts. At Ceriops Environmental Research Organization, we work to bridge this divide. Here’s how.

A young community member planting mangroves.

The five elements of mangrove conservation

Inspired by the counsel of our elders, we embrace the art of mangrove conservation, which consists of five critical elements.

First, mangroves belong to the ocean. We do not compete with it but instead complement it. We only plant mangroves when we are supposed to. This translates to higher survival rates and faster growth.

Secondly, the purpose of this art is not to just plant for the sake of it, but rather to restore harmony between people and nature. We invest in the socio-ecological aspects of mangrove restoration. Community members want to obtain their livelihoods from mangroves, while the mangroves are still recovering from degradation. At Ceriops, we embrace the science behind the art and showcase it to the world.

Carving a sense of belonging with the community and the Ceriops team.

The third element of mangrove restoration is the inspiration to continue what we are doing. Elders have played a significant role in motivating young people to appreciate the intrinsic value of this ecosystem by sharing their stories and reconnecting them with their roots. We work across generational lines to express the art of mangrove conservation.

Community members working together to solve common problems in mangrove conservation.

In mangrove conservation, we gain a sense of belonging. We are all connected to the ocean through the mangroves, and we participate in this art knowing that we are part of its expression, both today and in days to come when we are gone.

Finally, this incredible art expresses itself in patterns. For instance, each mangrove species can only thrive in a specific zone. Mangroves also have glades where trees do not grow. You must understand these patterns to successfully restore degraded mangrove ecosystems. Planting new mangrove trees is not always the solution.

A mangrove restoration planning meeting.

How can we reconcile science and Indigenous knowledge?

One of the major threats to the unique art of mangrove conservation is that it is dominated by individualism on one hand and paternalism on the other hand. Many scientists embody a paternalistic attitude by disregarding elders and denigrating their contribution to mangrove conservation. Instead, they adopt a top-down approach that alienates local community members by pushing them aside and seeking to ‘educate’ them about mangrove conservation.

Elders are the custodians of traditional wisdom, and they need to be given a platform to share it with younger generations. The very owners of the art have been sidelined, and so the expression of the art has become unnatural. This results in the illegal logging of mangroves, low tree survival and poor growth, as well as mangrove degradation. To sustainably develop mangrove ecosystems, we must join forces in embracing the elements of mangrove conservation art around the world.

To sustain their livelihoods, local communities can only cut small mangrove trees, as shown in this image.

Do we arrest community members who are simply pursuing their livelihoods? It’s time for governments and policymakers to make clear binding agreements on how forest benefits are shared with local communities. In Kenya, the government is the sole custodian of mangrove forests, which are gazetted as national property in the constitution. But policymakers are responsible for drawing action plans around mangrove forests, which affect not only the mangroves but also the communities adjacent to them. These action plans must yield benefits for these communities.

Let us – scientists and project managers – embrace our elders in active mangrove restoration by listening to their wise counsel. Local elders should be part and parcel of the planning of all mangrove conservation initiatives, as their input is crucial to ensuring their success and sustainability. Let’s invest in conservation education by creating an audience for the elders to share their vast pool of Indigenous knowledge.

This article is focused on value chains in support of the work of the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR), with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

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